Photo Credit: Joeri Poesen via Flickr
On Friday, the Houston Rockets were running circles around the Dallas Mavericks in the many ways they are wont to do: wonky dribble-drive penetration, inside-out pick-and-roll plays and sharpshooting from beyond the arc. That is, until the third quarter, when Dallas employed the infamous — and a smidge counterproductive — hack-a-Dwight strategy.
One fateful 1997 evening against the Chicago Bulls, Don Nelson gave birth to this strategy when his Mavericks purposefully sent Dennis Rodman to the line six times. Since then, it’s become common NBA folklore that subjection to intentional fouls should engender embarrassment. On first glance, it makes sense: how could a professional basketball player be so bad at shooting flat-footed shots from fifteen feet out that the other team would happily give him that choice? They’re called free throws, after all.
However, when teams implement hack-a-Dwight (or hack-a-DeAndre, or hack-a-Drummond, or what have you), they’re really communicating two things:
1. We don’t think we can win unless your coach benches you, so that’s become our strategy for winning; a strategy we so believe in that we’ll thin out our bench and force ourselves into the bonus for it.
2. We’re so certain we can’t defend your team when you’re on the court, in fact, that we’d rather concede an expected field goal percent of 57.5 percent (Dwight’s free throw percentage). That’s 1.154 points per possession or an offensive efficiency rating of about 115.4— a full five points higher than last year’s league leading Miami Heat.
It’s not a defensive strategy— it’s a defeatist strategy. In one way, fouling says “we think you’re a bad free throw shooter.” In another, it’s saying “I can’t defend you.” And when Russell Westbrook is hammered for driving the lane with reckless abandonment, it’s a reasonable admission. Even the NBA’s staunchest competitors won’t think twice sending explosive slashers to the line— they are, indeed, impossible to guard. But to foul Dwight Howard as he runs across the half court line is a crippling declaration. It takes guts for a group of NBA players to say, “we don’t even know what you or your team are about to do, but we sure as hell don’t want to find out.” More importantly, it takes a player with gravitas to elicit such vulnerability.
When it does work, it’s usually by fluke or the result of successful head games, ones that should be supplanted once the true nature of fouling is considered: If the hallmark of superiority in the NBA is an admission of greatness, Hack-a-Dwight should trigger confidence, not self-doubt.
Rather than approach your fate with indignation, Dwight Howard, head towards the stripe oozing of pride. You’re unstoppable. It may not feel like it but your challengers, the worlds most hyper-competitive athletes, willfully admit to it every time they send you to the line.
Statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com’s Stats tool.